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What is Systems?

I'm at a restaurant, with a group of my friend's friends. Someone asks what program I'm in, and I say "Systems Design Engineering." After a pause, one of them says, "So what is systems anyway?"

"My classmates and I ask each other that question all the time," I say.

"So it's one of those existential questions, like 'What is God?' or 'What is the meaning of life?'" he speculates.



I have my own thoughts about what Systems Design is, and what it means to me, but before I get into that, I'll quote some definitions by others. It's definitely a source of puzzlement and debate, even to those who are enrolled in the program. (Perhaps especially to us.)

The first thing I'll quote from is the definition of Systems Design that is on the department's website. This is the definition that my classmates and I saw before coming to university, and that played a part in attracting us to the program. The definition on the website seems to have changed since then, but I remember a bit of it.

"A rational response to an increasingly complex world." -- Systems Design Engineering Department Website, 2000.

Here's an excerpt from the current definition on the department website:

"Systems design engineering refers to the definition, analysis, and modelling of complex interactions among many components that comprise a natural system (such as an ecosystem and human settlement) or artificial system (such as a spacecraft or intelligent robot), and the design and implementation of the system with proper and effective use of available resources. While most traditional engineering disciplines are associated with a particular problem domain, systems design engineering is characterized by its philosophy, methods, and approaches to solving problems that are intrinsically multi-disciplinary. It is a unique blend of a systems philosophy and a creative problem- solving and design framework....

Systems design engineering is multidisciplinary and works at many levels of abstraction. From analysing the signal processing characteristics of a single nerve cell; to macroscopic human-machine systems involving psychological factors; to broad high-level studies in society, technology, and values. The systems design engineer is a most adaptable individual, and among the most capable people in society." -- Systems Design Engineering Department Website, 2003.

There is an International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE). I don't know much about them, but they also have a definition of Systems Engineering.

"Systems Engineering is an interdisciplinary approach and means to enable the realization of successful systems. It focuses on defining customer needs and required functionality early in the development cycle, documenting requirements, then proceeding with design synthesis and system validation while considering the complete problem:

* Operations
* Performance
* Test
* Manufacturing
* Cost & Schedule
* Training & Support
* Disposal

Systems Engineering integrates all the disciplines and specialty groups into a team effort forming a structured development process that proceeds from concept to production to operation. Systems Engineering considers both the business and the technical needs of all customers with the goal of providing a quality product that meets the user needs." --- INCOSE

A systems alumnus gave a guest lecture to our class, and shared the following insights.

"Systems design is the art of managing the vagueness." -- Tom Lee, systems alumnus and VP Marketing and Education, Maplesoft

"It will all make sense ten years from now." -- Tom Lee

One of our professors said this (perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek):

"Systems design is all about sprinkling poles and zeroes on the S and Z planes." -- Ed Jernigan

So as you can see, there are various definitions, and none of them seems to completely capture or pin down the concept.


When I tell people I am in Systems Design, I typically get one of three reactions:

1. Awe "Wow! You're in Systems? You must be really smart."
2. Derision "Uh huh. So you're a syssie, eh?"
3. Confusion "What is Systems?"

Confusion is by far the most common reaction. I get a lot of practice answering the question. If someone asks me "What is systems?", this is what I answer:

Systems design is an interdisciplinary program. It is basically a generalist's engineering. We get a bit of everything. We take some of the same courses that mechanical engineering students take, and some that electrical, computer, and civil engineers take. We get exposure to a broad range of engineering principles, but are not educated to the same level of specialized knowledge and expertise as our counterparts in individual disciplines. For example, a civil engineering student will have far more in-depth knowledge of various bridge structures and materials and how they are used in the real world, than a systems student. However, a systems student will have studied the underlying principles and physics that are the foundation for bridge design, and will be conversant in the concepts and terminology used. A systems student will also be educated in the basic concepts of electric circuits - both digital and analog, which is outside the scope of a civil engineering program, but studied by electrical engineers.

There are two words in 'Systems Design' and each of them is important. 'Systems' refers to an abstract concept. It's a bit hard to pin down or describe, but basically, it means studying the components of a system and how they interact. It can mean modelling a component or a system as a 'black box' -- where the internal workings cannot be seen, but the inputs and outputs, the constraints and the criteria, the boundary between the system and the environment can all be well-defined. It can also involve explicitly stating the assumptions made when creating or measuring specifications. The system can be anything -- an electrical circuit, a water reservoir and pipes, a bicycle, a power plant, an approach to social policy, an interface between a human and a machine -- anything. The conceptual framework is itself valuable, since it can yield powerful and practical results in a wide range of fields. In some ways it is very simple, yet it is a type of thinking that is rarely taught or applied in the real world. The systems approach is an important part of what gives systems graduates an edge in their careers, or so I'm told.

'Design' refers to the process of design, or in other words design methodology. Surprisingly, many engineering programs give students only a brief exposure to design methodology. There is a focus on design in the systems design program. Throughout the program, students are given a theoretical understanding of design processes and principles, and an appreciation for the momentous consequences of good and bad design in the world. Students also have to complete many design projects, working together in groups. Systematic methods for approaching design can then be tried out during the projects -- there is the opportunity to apply what is being taught and critically evaluate its usefulness and success.

Systems design students can choose to specialize in a particular area of interest, by taking specific courses in their fourth year of studies, and by learning skills and concepts on their co-op work terms. Specialization is not necessary, however. A systems student can choose to keep a more generalist approach. Systems alumni go in many different directions for their careers, according to their individual interests.

Systems design engineering is a unique and elite program. It is one of the toughest programs to get into at a university which has a high reputation for its engineering and mathematics programs, arguably the highest reputation in the country (the University of Waterloo). Students must not only have high grades, but also be active in extracurricular activities during high school, in order to be admitted to the program. To be in systems design engineering is to be surrounded by extremely intelligent and interesting people. It is also to be a part of a community that is friendly, supportive, engaging, and stimulating. I have the highest respect for my fellow students, and am honoured to be among them. It is perhaps the best thing about being in the program - the chance to get to know such interesting people. The school work is challenging, and at times overwhelming and excessive. It requires time and effort and dedication in order to succeed. The professors know that we are students who are dedicated and wish to excel, and they raise the bar of their expectations and course requirements accordingly. (Sometimes unfairly, in my opinion.) Nevertheless, it is an atmosphere where the challenge, and the desire to succeed, are seen in a positive light.

My view of what systems design is has been evolving over time. I am now about half-way through my program. Maybe in the future I will have different insights or perspectives to add to this page.

Do you have a definition of Systems Design Engineering? Let me know, and I can add it to the page.

© Ellen Kaye-Cheveldayoff, 2003-2009